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Cathal McAteer: “Folk is a vehicle for having an excellent time”

Cathal McAteer: “Folk is a vehicle for having an excellent time”

We catch up with Cathal McAteer, founder of cult British label Folk, a couple of weeks after his return from Houghton Festival. He had, he says, “an excellent time,” singling out fellow Glaswegians Optimo as a particular highlight. He’s been friends with the DJs for years, sharing with them not just a home city but also a deep love of dance music. “That energy and the underground nature of that music, of where it comes from, is pretty much our background,” he says. “It energises my thoughts.”

If you’ve ever been to the kind of clubs or festivals where Optimo DJ, you’ll likely have been surrounded by Folk. The brand, founded in London in 2001, has become the de facto uniform for a certain kind of clubber; one who takes the music seriously but knows the party’s all about having fun. It’s clothing that’s bright but not obnoxious, comfortable but distinctive, the perfect thing for making an impression but not worrying too much if you sweat all the way through it. In fact, that’s just how McAteer hopes you’ll treat his clothes.

It’s an approach that’s stayed remarkably consistent throughout Folk’s 17-year life-span. McAteer admits that, a few years, he was forced to rejig the formula somewhat when the high street began ripping off his brand’s playful but grown-up vibe. “Which is a massive compliment but it was pretty annoying,” he says. “Once we embraced it, though, we really enjoyed doing the change.” The new(ish) iteration of Folk is rooted in classic menswear, with a McAteer twist – unexpected fabrics, rich but wearable colours and, most importantly, texture. “You’ve got to feel that it’s not just something flat and boring,” he says. “We like to make sure our clothes aren’t cardboardy and it’s not going to take them a while to break in. You put it on right away and wear it and it feels like home.”

To mark Folk’s latest collection arriving on Thread, we sat down with McAteer in the brand’s Lamb’s Conduit Street store to talk music, fabric and the importance of good times.

The new collection was inspired by Japanese sound artist Ryoji Ikeda. It features cut-out panels and clothes that have been taken apart and put back together again


How was Folk born?

When we started, people dressed quite fanciful. It was deliberate, it was quite high fashion, it was expensive. But I was into indie music, I was into the outdoors, and I wanted to make a brand that was practical yet enjoyable to wear, so men felt like they were wearing something made specifically for them. I was making clothing for me and my mates that was unrestrictive and unrestricted. It took a while to form because it was self-financed and I was busy doing other things – having fun and running another business. But it takes a while, when you start something, to get to the standard you’re really happy with.


What was it like, trying to launch this thing from scratch?

From the outset, factories didn’t want to work with me. I was saying, ‘Can you make 12?’ They just told me to eff off. You have fabric minimums, or you want to buy some buttons and they want you to buy 1000. So there was all manner of restrictions, but we were making clothes in order to let the guy move with no restrictions. So it was quite an interesting dialogue with ourselves, with myself. I wrote some rules down – ‘This is the way we’ve got to do it, this is the way we can achieve it’ – and then we had a lot of fun creating that.

As well as clothes, McAteer has turned his design eye to furniture, footwear and photography


Did you find those boundaries help or hinder your creativity?

They can be liberating. I think you’ll find that’s created some guile and guts in the work. You get your jiggy on; you’ve only got a little bit to play with but by god you’re gonna make it work. It was an interesting process and I definitely learned a lot about getting the best out of very little. It does frustrate me, even with my children and people I work with; you don’t have to do it that way. Don’t have to spend that amount of money. There’s surely another option. I’ve worked with companies who have massive luxury in their resources but when you take something away, all hell could break loose. But I’m sure if I’d had plenty of cash and a factory behind me, I would have been spoiled but I’d have really enjoyed it as well.


Music’s a big thing for you and the brand. How does that inspire the clothes you make?

I definitely think that music has informed a lot of my clothes. I wish i got to more gigs – I was saying that the other day, I need to see more gigs. But the dance scene has been a big part of my life, all my life. That’s what I listen to, at work and on the train and on my bicycle. That energy and the underground nature of that music, of where it comes from, is pretty much our background. I really love it and it energises my thoughts, for sure.


Whenever I go to a club, half the guys are wearing Folk shirts.

That’s really good. You’re meant to have a good time in it, it’s unrestrictive. It’s for that kind of environment, because we make stuff with colour, that’s joyous but easy to wear. It could just be a nice big yellow, sunshine-like jummy. It’s fun but it’s normal. The same with shirts. We fit into that category. We’re doing more of that. We’re doing a collaboration with Daniel Johnston, we’ve done a collaboration with Atlantic Records that releases this year.


It feels very authentic. Like a natural space for Folk to be in.

Absolutely. And it’s an excellent vehicle to have a very good time.

Bolts of fabric in Folk's cutting room, which is tucked in the back of its Lamb's Conduit Street store


What else inspired the new collection?

We always have a lot to work with; picking the fabrics, picking the ambience. There’s this refraction. We basically decided to dismantle garments and put panels into them, and shapes into them, and it kind of went off on a line like that. There’s a Japanese artist who influenced the collection heavily, Ryoji Ikeda. But we tend to want to work with fabric, colour and texture and then artists, in a sense. Me and the creative team, are quite keen to spend hours in galleries. That’s our happy place. So you mix that with the energy of music.


The colours are particularly lovely. Really autumnal.

It has a nice warmth through colour. Caramel and sulphur tones. Sharp, sulphury yellow but the caramel just goes into all the other basic colours like black and navy and this lovely green colour, this great warm burgundy colour. It all gels together really nicely. The creative team feel pretty good about themselves.


You’ve also created some beautiful furniture, lighting, other design objects outside clothing. How does that fit into the Folk vibe?

They come together through opportunities. We made these beautiful lights for our shop in Soho. I went down to look at some lights; ‘I don’t like that, I don’t like that. Let’s make our own’. We open these new stores and have to put things in it. But being into design, you’re naturally drawn to other things. You sit in your house and think, ‘I want to change that, I want to change this.’ Or out walking on the fells, you’re naturally drawn to making a nice, cosy jacket to walk up a mountain in.


So it’s not a planned, plotted expansion of the Folk brand?

It’s not on-purpose. My mind wanders, so I end up getting involved in it because I can. My goal is not to be rich, it’s to live a rich life. And the process is what I find exciting. What wakes me up at four in the morning. You’re excited about solving an issue, whether it’s a table for the shop or a chair for my house or getting the balance of the new print for the next season. You’re constantly making things in your head and if I can probably make 10-15% of the things that are in my head, I’ll die quite happy.